High-tech cheaters keep educators on their toes

The capability for high-tech learning in schools across the country has created a potentially ugly side effect: the capability for high-tech cheating. The latest threats to academic integrity, according to some educators: graphing calculators and portable electronic devices such as cell phones, pagers, and Palm Pilots.

Students who once had to cheat by answer-copying, muffled whispers, and crib sheets now can use their calculators to recall stored formulas and their pagers and cell phones to send text messages containing answers to their classmates. Personal digital assistants, such as the Palm Pilot, can even be used to send short-range messages from student to student via an infrared beam.

Is electronic cheating a problem?

“I’m not sure how widespread [cheating using electronic devices] is,” said Jerry Wheeler, executive director for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a former educator.

“We know that students can put a formula into a calculator and pull it up, but when I was teaching, I often wrote my tests so that doing that was OK. I even let [students] bring cheat sheets to many tests. Tests that are so susceptible to cheating are probably asking too many recall questions,” he explained.

Educators at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Ariz., require the use of graphing calculators in some classes. “Graphing calculators are allowed in our math and science classes. In fact, they are supplied in class. The only time kids can’t use them is on their standardized tests. We try and teach kids to use them properly,” said Assistant Superintendent Brenda Mayberry.

National figures show that cheating is on the rise, and the threat to academic integrity is all too real, according to Don McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University and the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, headquartered at Duke University.

“Too often, kids’ governing ethos is that if it is digitally possible, it is OK to do,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer at the Hill School in Pennsylvania.

McCabe, one of the nation’s top researchers in school cheating, has seen a surge in cheating over the past five years, and he believes the main culprit is increased pressure for kids to perform academically.

“My research reveals a significant number of students who feel they are disadvantaged by not cheating. They feel they have no choice, at least in the sense that they feel opportunities would be taken away from them by students who do cheat,” he said.

According to a November 1999 survey by U.S. News and World Report, 72 percent of high school students said they have cheated before or know others who have cheated. And a study conducted by Who’s Who Among American High School Students revealed that 80 percent of high-achieving high school students admit to cheating at least once.

According to Carolyn Kleiner and Mary Lord in U.S. News, “What’s changed, experts maintain, is the scope of the problem: the technology that opens new avenues to cheat, students’ boldness in using it, and the erosion of conscience at every level of education.”

But is technology directly to blame for the increase in cheating? Most educators seem to think not.

“I don’t think that electronic technology has caused a huge surge in cheating,” McCabe said.

Wheeler agreed: “These figures should be a wake-up call to educators. I don’t think this is a problem with technology, but a problem with integrity. I think technology is in danger of being blamed for something that is much more fundamental.”

“I think we have seen a substitution of technologies. Where one time, students would grab a paper out of the cheat file at their fraternity or use a friend’s old paper, those same students now find it easier and more convenient to use technology,” said McCabe, whose Center for Academic Integrity found that three-quarters of college students admit to cheating at least once.

“If you are going to cheat, you are going to cheat,” said Doug Picker, a spokesman for Symbol Technologies. Symbol provides schools and businesses with handheld devices, called Pocket PCs, which run on the Palm operating system.

Picker said the Pocket PC makes it possible for students to communicate wirelessly with one another over short distances using an infrared port. But he believes it is just as hard to cheat using a personal digital assistant as it is to cheat in a more traditional manner.

“To cheat with these devices, you would have to have a conspiracy,” he said, explaining that a student wishing to cheat would have to align the infrared port on his or her device with that of another student, simultaneously press the button that sends information, and work out a code for transmitting answers, all without the teacher noticing.

“Technology is just another way to cheat in a cute and cool way,” Picker said. “It is usual for a new technology to create skeptics. This is not going to make a nation of cheaters out of us.”

Preventative measures

There are steps that teachers can take to help ensure that students aren’t using Palms, pagers, cell phones, or calculators to cheat in class. Generally, schools have polices against cheating that can be applied to technology as well, explained Wheeler.

“The teachers must be very clear about expectations and eliminate all ambiguity about what is cheating,” he said.

“I would say that most schools have a policy about cheating, but few cover in meaningful detail what they are actually prohibiting. An overly detailed code of conduct is not helpful, but I think schools need more than just a sentence in the school policy,” said McCabe.

“It is just something else teachers need to be aware of when giving tests,” said Symbol’s Picker.

According to Mayberry, students are not supposed to bring pagers, cell phones, or other handheld devices to Mountain Pointe at all.

“Our rule at first was to confiscate anything we saw, but they are just so prevalent. I mean, even our teachers and administrators have cell phones. So now we say [these devices] just can’t be seen or heard in class, or we will confiscate them,” she said.

Consequences for those caught cheating at Mountain Point High are severe, Mayberry said. “Our school has a policy on cheating in general, not specifically using electronics. Any student caught cheating gets an automatic zero on the assignment, or they might fail the class, if they cheat on something like a final exam,” she explained.

“I’m a firm believer that you should encourage integrity rather than police dishonesty,” McCabe said. “I’m a believer in taking a more positive approach.”

A meaningful code of conduct is the key to controlling cheating, according to Bauer. “Kids at my school know that if they get caught cheating, they will be asked to leave the school. Believe me, that is a pretty effective deterrent,” he said.


National Science Teachers Association

Center for Academic Integrity

Symbol Technologies

Mountain Pointe High School

The Hill School

eSchool News Staff

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